Japanese Stores Test Robot Workers

    19 July 2020

    In August, a robot will begin placing food and drinks on store shelves in Japan. This is a test that the robot's maker hopes will help create a wave of automation in retail stores. Automation is the process of using robots or computers, instead of people, for some jobs.

    The manufacturer of the robot worker is a Tokyo-based company called Telexistence.

    Following the test, store operator FamilyMart says it plans to use such robots at 20 stores in and around Tokyo by 2022.

    A staff member of Telexistence checks the company's shelf-stacking avatar robot, designed to resemble a kangaroo and developed to work in a convenience store in Tokyo, Japan July 3, 2020. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)
    A staff member of Telexistence checks the company's shelf-stacking avatar robot, designed to resemble a kangaroo and developed to work in a convenience store in Tokyo, Japan July 3, 2020. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)

    One of FamilyMart's competitors is the retail chain Lawson. That company will be testing its first robot in September, according to Telexistence.

    At first, people will operate the robots from a distance. These operations will continue until the machines' artificial intelligence (AI) can learn to copy human-like movements.

    Jin Tomioka is the robot maker's chief executive. He noted how the technology lets people sense and experience places other than where they are.

    "It advances the scope and scale of human existence," he said.

    The idea, called telexistence, was first proposed around 40 years ago by the company's co-founder, University of Tokyo professor Susumu Tachi.

    Telexistence calls its robot the Model T, after the famous Ford Motor car. The Ford Model T began the era of mass car use around 100 years ago.

    The robot looks somewhat like an Australian animal -- a kangaroo. The unusual design is meant to help people feel at ease. Many people feel uneasy around robots that look too human.

    Escaping factories

    Robots are still a rare sight in public. They also struggle with simple jobs in unexpected settings.

    Solving that problem could help businesses in some countries, especially those in rapidly aging Japan, deal with fewer workers. Businesses hit by the coronavirus may also need to operate with fewer people.

    Since the coronavirus crisis began , hotels, restaurants and even oil companies have contacted Telexistence, Tomioka said.

    Niki Harada is an official at Japan's Restaurant Workers Union. "It's difficult to tell now what impact robots might have in restaurants - it could mean fewer people, but it could also create new jobs," Harada said.

    Although FamilyMart will still need people to control its robots, operators can be anywhere. The operators can also be people who would not normally work in stores, said Tomohiro Kano, a general manager.

    "There are about 1.6 million people in Japan, who for various reasons are not active in the workforce," he said.

    Takeo Kanade is an AI and robotics scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. Kanade joined Telexistence in February as an adviser.

    Future telexistence robots could be used in hospitals so doctors could perform operations from a distance, he said.

    However, he added, it might take another 20 years before robots can work in people's homes.

    "In order for robots to be really usable at home," he said, "we really have to be able to communicate."

    I'm John Russell.

    Tim Kelly reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    shelf – n. a flat object which is connected to a wall, and on which other objects can be placed

    retail – n. the business of selling things directly to customers for their own use

    chain – n. a group of stores or businesses owned by the same company

    according – adv. as stated by or in

    artificial intelligence n. the development of computers with the ability to do things that normally require human intelligence

    scope – n. the area that is included in or dealt with by something

    scale – n. the size or level of something especially in comparison to something else

    era n. a long time or period of history

    rapidly – adj. very quickly

    impact – v. to have a strong effect on someone or something